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Umma’s Table

by Yeon-Sik Hong; Janet Hong (trans.)

How our way of life and health are interconnected with those of our children and parents is of particular interest in this season of global pandemic. In a translation by Vancouver writer Janet Hong, Korean cartoonist Yeon-Sik Hong’s second graphic novel takes a look at how family closeness can be a source of both well-being and grave distress.

The middle volume in a planned trilogy that began with 2017’s Uncomfortably Happy (also from Montreal house Drawn & Quarterly), Umma’s Table follows cartoonist Madang, his artist wife, and their newborn child as they try to settle into the rhythms of life in their new country house. Though the transition from city living to days of long walks and gardening in a mountain village is a catalogue of amusing adjustments and rustic delights, the failing health of his parents back in Seoul disrupts Madang’s idyll. And when his mother is suddenly hospitalized and his days and nights are spent alternately at her bedside and in a succession of vaguely dystopic waiting rooms, he begins to confront the parts of his childhood that made him so eager to start a life far away from the city he grew up in.

Hong’s cartooning has a vivacity even in his narrative’s most dour moments. Playful and clear, this story opens with the excitement of the long drive to the new country house, during which Hong shows us the car never once touching the ground: the buoyancy of the characters lives in every line on the page, strict reportage abandoned in favour of a verisimilitude of mood and tone. This carries through to his character design – the figures in the books are rendered as anthropomorphic animals, full of plastic expressivity that threatens to become absurd but somehow maintains its emotional grip.

Umma’s Table looks at how the cycles of our days – what we eat and where we live – become the cycles of our lives and generations. Hong offers a nuanced and messy exploration of the impact that childhood experiences – of places, of tastes, of household power – have on the adult lives we make for ourselves. While Madang’s enthusiasm for clean country living at first seems to be a mere preference, as we move through his memories and watch him care for his ailing parents, we see that on some level, these choices are not aesthetic but tactical. Fresh foods and freelancing and country air are not affectations of Madang’s generation or class: they are an ongoing mediation of the troubles of his childhood, an attempt to preempt the ills he sees ravaging his parents. While many works connect food to well-being, Hong casts these observations across generations to moving effect.

Hong’s book explores some of the most basic but visceral problems of humanity. What are the limits of self-care in the face of others’ needs? How do we care for someone who has ceased to care for themselves? How do we find joy when others are in pain? Umma’s Table manages to be both a meditation on and a celebration of life, family, and the small places and things that fill our days.